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An inmate who was convicted of rape and lost his bids in Pennsylvania’s state courts to get a DNA test that could clear his name is not barred from filing suit in federal court to challenge the denial of DNA testing on constitutional grounds, a federal judge has ruled. Senior U.S. District Judge Charles R. Weiner’s eight-page opinion in Godschalk v. Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office is a significant victory for Bruce Godschalk and his lawyers because it allowed his federal suit to clear an important first hurdle. Prosecutors had argued that Godschalk was simply trying to relitigate issues that had already been decided by the Pennsylvania courts — a move they said is barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. But Godschalk’s lawyers — David Rudovsky of Kairys Rudovsky Epstein Messing & Rau; University of Pennsylvania law Professor Seth Kreimer and former O.J. Simpson attorneys Barry C. Scheck and Peter J. Neufeld of the Innocence Project at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law — argued that the issues litigated in the state courts were different. Judge Weiner agreed and found that Godschalk was not asking the federal courts to overturn a state court decision. Weiner noted that the “overwhelming” precedent in the 3rd Circuit holds that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine should be applied narrowly. When Godschalk asked the state courts for access to DNA evidence, Weiner said, the request was “based solely on the nature of proof presented at trial.” The state courts rejected the request, he said, on the basis of two Pennsylvania Superior Court decisions that said DNA evidence is available only when the conviction was based largely or primarily on identification testimony, while Godschalk’s case also included a confession. But Godschalk claims his confession was coerced and never should have been introduced at trial. As a result, Weiner found that the narrow question presented in Godschalk’s federal case — whether denial of his access to DNA evidence raises constitutional violations — would not require the federal courts to review the state court decisions that denied Godschalk access to that evidence. Godschalk was convicted in 1987 for two rapes that occurred in 1986. At trial, prosecutors relied on the identification testimony of one of the witnesses and Godschalk’s alleged confession. After he was convicted of both rapes, Godschalk was sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison and is still serving his term. In post-trial motions, he argued that his confession was coerced and should have been suppressed, but the superior court rejected that claim. Six years later, Godschalk filed a petition to inspect evidence and asked for an order that the DA’s office turn over semen samples so that DNA tests could be conducted. But the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas and the superior court both rejected the petition, citing the superior court decisions in Commonwealth v. Reese and Commonwealth v. Brison. In his federal suit, filed last year, Godschalk claims that the DA’s refusal to release the biological evidence for DNA testing — which he promised to have done at his own expense — violates his due process rights. He also argued that depriving him of an opportunity to prove that he is innocent violates the Eighth Amendment bar against cruel and unusual punishment. Attorney Walter S. Jenkins of Philadelphia’s Sweeney Sheehan & Spencer, representing the DA’s office, argued that while Godschalk had couched his claims in terms of violations of his civil rights, “at its core, however, is the dissatisfaction that plaintiff has with the decisions of the state courts.” Under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, Jenkins argued, “federal district courts lack the authority to review state court judgments where the relief sought is in the nature of appellate review.” But Weiner found that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine was not implicated because Godschalk’s petition in the state courts was decided solely on issues of state law whereas his federal claim is predicated on constitutional claims. “By considering the merits of plaintiff’s constitutional claims, we need not conclude that the state court was wrong,” Weiner wrote. But Weiner stressed that his ruling should not be read as any intimation of the court’s ultimate opinion on the question of whether Godschalk will be successful in pressing his constitutional claims. “For now,” he wrote, “we merely find that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine does not bar this court from exercising subject matter jurisdiction over this matter.”

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